My Take: If Rwandans can forgive killings, we can forgive the waitress
Innocent, left, is a Rwandan who murdered five people, including the brother of Gespard, right.
November 7th, 2011
12:13 PM ET

My Take: If Rwandans can forgive killings, we can forgive the waitress

Editor’s note: Jeremy Cowart is a Los Angeles-based celebrity portrait photographer and founder of Help-Portrait, a global movement of photographers giving free portraits to those in need. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

By Jeremy Cowart, Special to CNN

Would you forgive the bully that tripped you in 3rd grade? What about the terrible service from that lazy waitress? Or the guy who cut you off on the interstate?

What about the man who murdered your children? If he asked you for forgiveness, would you grant it? Would you agree to spend time with him – maybe one day call him your friend?

That's what some in Rwanda are doing: Forgiving and reconciling with murderers who killed their children, friends, siblings and parents during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

See Cowart's Rwanda series on CNN Photos.

I recently met some of them face-to-face.

My journey to them began a year ago, when I attended a conference for young Christians called Catalyst. A filmmaker named Laura Waters Hinson presented her documentary "As We Forgive," about a pair of Rwandan women on a journey to reconcile with the men who slaughtered their families.

The 1994 genocide had seen tens of thousands of Rwandan Hutus, provoked by extremist propaganda, kill roughly 800,000 Tutsi neighbors. Hinson had been showing her film across Rwanda to encourage reconciliation in schools, churches and villages.

After she spoke, I presented "Voices of Haiti," a series of photos I captured in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

At the conference, Hinson and I discussed combining our projects into a "Voices of Reconciliation" photo series. We wanted Rwandans to have an opportunity to make their own statements to the world. Nine months later, I was in Rwanda, working with Hinson and her team.

I grew up in the church and am a practicing Christian. I've heard "love your neighbor" and "forgive others because God forgave you" my entire life. But I don't recall my church ever discussing the idea of forgiving killers.

Our culture certainly doesn't promote the idea. The terms we discuss are "death penalty" vs. "life sentence." We expect full justice at every turn.

No one ever goes so far as to say, "You know, you might consider forgiving the guy that killed your dad." And who would suggest building a relationship with the murderer?

But what if we did forgive because "God forgave us?" Christians believe that God offers forgiveness to the worst of humanity. God, via the death of Jesus, traded places with humanity, bearing the punishment for sin that everyone else deserved. For Rwandans, it’s this theological principle that’s enabling a growing phenomenon of radical forgiveness.

Let's put beliefs aside. What if our entire culture - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, whatever - forgave everyone,  even our worst enemies?

What if we generously tipped our waitress after terrible service? What if we stopped counting the wrongs of our spouse and gave them a clean slate? What if we forgave the uncle who sexually abused us as a child?

From what I witnessed in Rwanda, this kind of radical grace is possible. While incredibly difficult to accomplish - especially if the offender has not admitted their wrong and asked for forgiveness, it’s a force that has the power to tear down walls and free hearts.

Hinson, whose film led to the creation of a Rwandan reconciliation organization, says that “some Rwandans liken unforgiveness to the experience of having acid eat you from the inside out. Others describe it like being trapped in a prison of hatred.”

“For the victims,” she says, “forgiving their offenders is a way of setting themselves free from the chains of anger and bitterness.”

On the other hand, I was struck by meeting many perpetrators whose burden of guilt seemed to weigh almost as heavily on them as the victims’ burden of pain. Forgiveness released both ends of the burden. It is perhaps the greatest thing I'll ever see in my lifetime.

The guys in the photo above wrote a message on their arms: "Love is the weapon that destroys all evil.”

It's hard to believe that the man named Innocent, left, murdered five people, including the brother of Gespard, right. They are standing on the site of the executions.

After serving a few years in prison, Innocent was released upon confessing to his crimes. He begged Gespard for forgiveness during a reconciliation workshop sponsored by the As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative.

Like many Rwandans, these men participated in a reconciliation process that involved months of workshops, along with praying and doing agricultural work together, part of an ingenious effort to encourage reconciliation and alleviate poverty at the same time.

Today, Innocent and Gespard count each other as friends.

Other messages that survivors and perpetrators wrote on their signs are "Brothers in Forgiveness," "Truth restores trust" and "We restored our humanity."

Maybe we start small and decide to forgive the waitress, no matter what. Maybe if we begin with small acts of grace, we could one day find ourselves practicing radical grace and restoring humanity, too.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeremy Cowart. Cowart's and Hinson's work in Rwanda was funded by a grant from the SEVEN Fund, an organization that promotes enterprise solutions to poverty.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Opinion • Rwanda • Violence

soundoff (442 Responses)
  1. Yu Tang

    I didn't read the article coz I would not believe this.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      This is just a guess mind you, but I am guessing you didn't read the article because you can't read. Having said that, I just realized the fallacy of my post.

      November 7, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  2. reflection

    The hard part I think for all of us would be knowing in your heart that the killer is remorseful. Our view in the US compared to what happened in Rhwanda can only be compared to events like Rosewood. It's too bad that Rhwanda didn't have a government for the people to rule and establish law. Some here will forgive but we as a society can forgive that does not mean to dismiss punishment. If you beleive and God and want forgiveness then God will forgive you if your heart is true. As for this story it's nice and I wish them well!

    November 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  3. Skegeeace

    This is why forgiveness is so important! If you rely only on earthly "justice", what happens when the killer is 80 years old and dies peacefully in his sleep without ever having suffered any consequences? It can eat you up inside to think that nothing was done to met out justice. If you don't forgive, you can harp on that the rest of your life and let it poison you and then the killer has killed twice in a sense. If you forgive, you release yourself from the expectation of justice and are fulfilled no matter what happens with the killer. It's beautiful picture; especially when the killer/wrong-doer actually asks for forgiveness. It's not easy, but it's worth it. The Lord Jesus walked in this way and so should we.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • ladydi

      I would never forgive. I cant imagine the fear these people felt as they were being sliced to pieces alive, having their hearts cut out while they were still breathing, having their heads cut off and put on sticks to display.......Hate is a powerful word............I would want revenge in its fullest. No ifs, ands or buts.......you kill someone I love, I kill you in return........ I'll make you suffer. Only then would I be able to finally sleep at night.

      November 7, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  4. jmb2fly

    Great article! Without forgiveness we sink into bitterness that eventually will destroy our own lives. Forgiving those who wrong us frees us to live. Forgiveness doesn't mean that people avoid all the consequences of their actions.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  5. aceblazin

    So let me figure this out. So when a "Christian" does something good, it becomes a headline. When a Muslim does something bad, it becomes a headline. The media is full of BS.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • aceblazin

      I'm not sure if this Rwandan is either Christian or Muslim.

      November 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  6. agentgirl

    All friends until another war starts. Same thing happened in Yugoslavia, everyone lived nice and happy next door to each other until the war started. Then they were killing their neighbors who were their friends. Human beings are an ugly species. I am hoping we learn from all this ugliness but not so sure.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Steve

      Hate to tell you, but they were never friends. I was stationed over there for a while. It was a matter that while they did live side by side for so many years without any issues, they always hated each other. That hatred went back hundreds and hundreds of years. It was never really friendly there between each group.

      November 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  7. Johan S

    Typically the segment of society that doesnt believe in forgiveness or compassion are the ones voting Republicans. Has any Republican presidential candidate spoken about compassion, forgiveness, and loving your fellow human? Even Reagan spoke about it .. nowadays it's totally absent from the once great Republican party .. the party of Lincoln.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  8. Sam A

    Maybe he would also think different if his head wasn't filled with fairy tales of an afterlife and realizes that he will never see his family again.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • JomoDaMusicMan

      This is why the slave masters taught blacks Christianity. They wanted to insure that if the Black Slave ever was to raise up and overthrow their masters that slave would not treat his masters as harsh as the slave was treated. Now, Because the slave is a christian he only knows about the love of Jesus and turning the other cheek. The Black Preacher only could preach about turning the other cheek . He could not preach about how the Children of Israel knocked down the wall of Jericho and went inside and killed every man, woman and child because Joshua said it was God's Will. Couldn't preach about how Samson killed ten thousand of his enemy. Blacks are the only race taught to forgive his enemies and turn other cheek. GO TO ISRAEL AND TELL THEM ABOUT TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK, AND U PROBABLY WOULD BE THROWN IN JAIL OR WORSE.

      November 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  9. Slavadil

    Some people clearly don't attach much weight to their family members. I don't see this as heartwarming, I see this as infuriating and pathetic. His brother is probably looking down from heaven and vomiting at this picture... If I were in the same position I know thats what I'd be doing. I love my brother, and he loves me. For us, love isn't something you throw away for the sake of some over-the-top and patronizing photo-op.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Skegeeace

      That's the trap that unforgiveness creates. Your brother is in Heaven not holding onto anger, but free from all sorrow, suffering, and any negative feelings. I'm sure your brother loves you and would want the best for you and part of that is to be free from anger. God bless you!

      November 7, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Aleksandr

      There is no afterlife. THIS is your life. That man's brother is DEAD, now and forever. And he's now hugging the murderer. Pathetic.

      November 7, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  10. Bill G

    Maybe this guy didn't like his family, and the other dude did him a big favor.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  11. Burnz

    I have to wonder. If someone punched this author in the face. Would he hit back? What if I punched his brother? Would he back him up? I understand the need to move forward. But I would NEVER forgive someoen who murdered a family member. I would take it from their flesh.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  12. Stanley

    Could I forgive someone who has killed a close loved one? Absolutely. Through the grace of Jesus Christ I was able to meet with the individual who dropped a basket ball sized rock off of a pedestrian bridge, crashing through the window of the school bus that by dad was driving and killing him instantly. It is only through the grace of Christ that I could do such a thing. (http://www.lastlinkontheleft.com/e2002stanley.html)

    November 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • JomoDaMusicMan

      This story is about a total different type of violence. Throwing a large object from a bridge could have been done by a foolish individual horsepllaying without any attempt to injure or kill someone. But in the case of this story, this individual intentionally killed, murdering family members because of hate. He is just like the KKK who went thru black neighborhoods and pulled blacks from their housing and lynching them. No, I can't forget nor could I forgive. Only wish there was a way to get even without going to jail for revenge killing.

      November 7, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  13. Linda Operle

    As I think of all the people dear to me and what I would feel should someone intentionally take their life, I wonder how do you do that? "it's o.k. I forgive you for being sub-human, crazed, without conscience, decency and respect and valueless to society", "I forgive you for taking the person I hold dearest in life, for destroying my life and for robbing society of the benefits and contributions my loved one would someday have made". SERIOUSLY!!!

    November 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  14. Howit Hurtz

    Here's how it works in Jersey: you tell the guy you're going to forgive him, then invite him to dinner. Then you poison his food and watch him die before your eyes. Videotape it and send it to CNN as a bonus. Priceless.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  15. AtheistSteve

    Since I don't for one second believe in a higher power to mete out judgement for our "sins" I depend on earthly judicial practices to balance the scales of Justice. Forgive a killer? Nope...they must pay for their crime.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  16. Brian

    Maybe the question should continue and say if you can't forgive them then what does that say about you as a person?

    November 7, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  17. GeneK1953

    The stories of people forgiving those who have committed horrible crimes against them and their loved ones are truly uplifting.

    As far as the opening question about the 3rd grade bully, the bad waitress and the rude driver, I don't think about "forgiving them," because I really can't afford to devote the time and energy to get upset with anyone who does something that inconsequential to me in the first place.

    November 7, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  18. Jaclyn

    Bravo! Finally someone reporting REAL news. Thank you!

    November 7, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  19. movement31

    I'm not going to be friends with someone and stand beside them smiling if theyve killed anyone from my family...thats just ridiculous in my eyes..

    November 7, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  20. ChicagoRob

    hmm could I ever forgive someone who took my loved ones away? nope..maybe that makes me a bad person but I just couldn't do it. regardless of propaganda or being caught up with others..at some point in those situations a person has an individual choice to make. If in that moment you felt the need to slaughter my wife, children, parents what have you..Nothing would keep me from doing my very best to avenge my loss upon you. ( note here i wouldn't touch your own family a persons choice lies within themselves once they reach an age to choose wisely)

    November 7, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Randy

      That is why it takes a supernatural touch from The Lord that even while He was hanging on The Cross said: "Father forgive then, for they no not what they do. And while Steven, the first follower of Jesus to be killed, even as he was being stoned to death asked God not to lay it to their account, to forgive them.

      November 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.